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China’s racy but radical tabloid

China’s racy but radical tabloid

How a salacious newspaper – full of gossip and dramatic crime stories – is getting the Chinese authorities really worried


Hi, I’m Nimo – and this is Sensemaker.

One story every day to make sense of the world.

Today, why has a racy tabloid got the most powerful authoritarian government in the world so annoyed?

“We start in Hong Kong where China’s crackdown on dissent is intensifying. Five hundred police officers have raided the offices of the pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily. They arrested five executives, including the editor-in-chief Ryan Law.”

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For quite a while now, China has been clamping down on the freedom of people in Hong Kong. 

Hong Kong is a region of China, but it’s meant to have some room to govern itself… as part of a policy called ‘one country, two systems’.

But for quite a while, it’s been obvious that China’s tolerance for Hong Kong being different has been running out.

Remember those mass protests in the months before the Covid pandemic? Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to protest against new laws which brought Hong Kong closer into China’s orbit.

“On one occasion teargas was fired at point-blank range in an underground train station, creating a terrifying stampede.”

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And that’s where Apple Daily comes in.

It’s a proper tabloid. It’s full of salacious gossip, car accidents and dramatic crime stories. It’s probably not the paper you’d expect the Chinese authorities to really worry about.

But they are worried. Because Apple Daily is a big supporter of Hong Kong’s pro democracy movement and not a big fan of China’s authoritarianism.

And all this came to a head last week….

One of the ways China has tightened its grip on Hong Kong is by passing a new national security law which made it an offence to say all kinds of things which the Chinese government objects to – particularly speaking out in favour of Hong Kong’s democracy and separateness.

And on Thursday that law was used against Apple Daily

“So the answer is simple do your journalistic work as freely as you like… in accordance with the law.”

Hong Kong security chief John Lee speaking at a press conference

Hong Kong police swarmed the newspaper’s offices.

They took away computers and searched the place. 

They froze millions of dollars of the newspaper’s assets.

They arrested five executives, including the editor-in-chief Ryan Law.

Their message was clear: writing can land you in jail.

So why did China target Apple Daily?

“I came here with one dollar. I got everything I have because of this place.”

Jimmy Lai speaking in a BBC interview

The story of Apple Daily starts in Tiananmen Square, Beijing… where, in 1989, the Chinese government massacred pro-democracy protesters.

A fashion tycoon called Jimmy Lai, who was smuggled from mainland China into Hong Kong when he was just a boy, watched those scenes. 

He decided he couldn’t stay silent, and, six years after the Tiananmen Square massacre, he launched a paper. 

In 1995, when the paper was launched, Hong Kong was about to come under Chinese rule. And in the city’s newspapers, there was a creeping pro-Beijing slant.

But Jimmy Lai’s newspaper bucked that trend.

Apple Daily was trashy then, and it still is now. It has its fair share of tittle-tattle and paparazzi shots.

But in one key respect it is deadly serious: it’s fiercely critical of China.

Down the years that has put Jimmy Lai in danger. 

In 2009, a Hong Kong businessman in Taiwan offered assassins $1 million to kill him.

In 2015, his home was firebombed. 

And last August he was thrown in prison, and later convicted over his role in a peaceful protest. 

“This is just living my life peacefully, but if I’m in jail, I’m living my life meaningfully.”

Jimmy Lai speaking in a BBC interview

And on Thursday, it was the turn of his paper. 

Reporters livestreamed from Apple Daily’s rooftop as Hong Kong police declared their office a crime scene. 

Police arrested journalists, seized computers and mobile phones, and froze Apple Daily’s accounts…

How did the police justify the raid? 

Well it was all done under a new national security law.

Hong Kong had been rocked by anti-government protests for a year when China passed a law which critics called “the end of Hong Kong”.

On the 30 June 2020, the new security law came into force.

What’s really important is this: secession, subversion, terrorism and what the law calls ‘collusion with foreign forces’ can be punished with imprisonment, and in some cases a life sentence. 

The law is framed so broadly that it allows China to bend Hong Kong more and more to its will.

And last Thursday, a new line was crossed.

It was the first time that Hong Kong journalists have been arrested directly under that new law.

So why does China find Apple Daily such a threat?

“We are not talking about media work or journalist work. We are talking about a conspiracy in which the suspects try to make use of journalistic work to collude with a foreign country or external elements.”

Hong Kong security chief John Lee speaking at a press conference

Perhaps the biggest single reason for the crackdown on Apple Daily is that it embarrasses China.

First, because it refuses to be bullied. 

Even when its founder Jimmy Lai was arrested, Apple Daily kept going. 

It’s no wonder that the executives who were arrested last Thursday were reportedly targeted because of the dozens of articles calling for sanctions on China. Its criticism of China is relentless.

The second reason is that the paper is one of the only remaining cheerleaders for the pro-democracy movement.

Nearly all of Hong Kong’s major activists are either in exile, in court, or in prison.

But the paper is still on the streets, physically of course, but also as a symbol of stubborn freedom.

Nothing says this better than a photograph which went viral just after Jimmy Lai was arrested last year. 

It showed a teenager defiantly reading Apple Daily at a metro stop, surrounded by police and cordoned off from other commuters.

So what’s the future for Apple Daily?

Well it’s clear that the paper is hanging by a thread, and not just because its editor-in-chief has been arrested.

Staff are worried about their personal safety, and because the paper’s funds have been frozen Apple Daily doesn’t know how to pay their salaries. 

As a result, the paper says it’s going to decide on Friday whether it’s time to close for good.

But it isn’t going gently.

On the afternoon of the raid it told its readers that it would “press on till the end to see the arrival of dawn”.

And a day later, it increased its print run from 80,000 copies to 500,000.

Apple Daily isn’t leaving without a fight.

Today’s story was written and produced by Xavier Greenwood.